Thursday, January 14, 2010

R.I.P. Teddy Pendrergrass

the joy of infatuation

and the pain of losing in the game of love......

Disaster Porn

No camp or irony for me today. I am riveted as usual by television shows, my training in post-modernism and advanced-stage academentia allows me to maintain the fiction that in watching I am engaging in cultural/political analysis. In fact, I am procrastinating, checking out, or participating in prurient fascination with the "Jersey Shore" house mates or whatever. Following the horrific earthquake in Haiti two days ago, I watched as CNN, the pioneer in this 24 hour cable news programming, put into play its disaster blanket coverage mode, otherwise known as "disaster porn." Feeding into voyeurism, genuine empathy, racist imagery or preconceptions, the need to escape one's own misery by gazing at another's, and more, this type of coverage has expanded to unimaginable scale thanks to the up to the millisecond participatory media nexus of Cable/Twitter/Flickr/cell phone camera uploads/texting/Skype, etc.

I remember when, right after 9/11 when our phones did not work, I sent out emails to everyone I knew for as long as I could until the laptop battery ran out. On the one hand we have incredible technological mastery while the entire world collapses around us. No water, but you can Twitter! I also know what it's like to be on the other side. Speaking with my family as they were in the eye of hurricane Charley and at the onset of another assault of wind, the phone was cut off. The last things I heard were my mother screaming, a sound like a train coming into a station, banging noises....then nothing. For 36 hours. All I did was redial redial redial not knowing if the house had collapsed on top of them or anything else. Anderson Cooper was a reassuring image on the TV because he was reporting from the town where I grew up, which was leveled, I did not recognize any landmarks. It was Ground Zero for Hurricane Charley, there was nothing to see and only rumors to hear. During my research for a book, I similarly looked for images and information about my grandfather and other relatives' activities during the Spanish Civil War. I got sketchy information from police documents or administrative files. I knew that my grandfather had fought in a particular battle. One day, I found a cache of press photographs from that city, Teruel. I remember poring over them searching for my grandfather's face in vain. This is what happens after a disaster. Incessantly repetitive despite the horrific particularities or source materials to follow the aftermath of each event. So CNN plays on these emotional traumas, knowing audiences will be drawn in for as long as they rehearse the horror.

First comes the logo - the seal of Haiti and now the flag and continuously re-booting BREAKING NEWS banner. Second the theme music, which is less and less necessary since the vast majority of the program is devoted solely to this story. Third Anderson Cooper and his grey blue t-shirt or epaulet button down grey blue (Jill Sander? Prada?) shirt are parachuted down to the disaster area. Depending on the number of dead, presumed interest on the part of US audiences, and desire to distract from domestic news, ie. the pending health care bill negotiation, or the appearance of a more compelling event (a white child being abducted, a celebrity dying under mysterious circumstances), the story will last more or less time. Once it starts to wane, we go into the meta commentary phase. Panels of talking heads are assembled to analyze the media's coverage of a story. Soon the question is asked: "Are we spending too much time on this story?" This is when you know that as an addict, they are about to pull the plug on your meds.

They mean well, they keep directing you to a page where you can find organizations to donate funds to aid Haiti. (Sidebar: the name of the CNN site "IMPACT YOUR WORLD" is grammatically incorrect. Using impact as a verb has been discredited. You need to write have an impact on your world. But I digress.) Last night there was an inadvertent moment of realness from Port-au-Prince. Anderson, Gary Tuchman and another reporter stood in glaring camera lighting as behind them you saw only darkness and heard inchoate sounds of screaming, singing, praying, people calling out to others invisible in the night. Tuchman said that the grim situation and lack of assistance to the victims reminded him of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. This too had come to my mind. The US wants to forget that within our own borders we have pockets of extreme poverty and our own government seems incapable or unwilling to assist certain populations. Look at our health care statistics, the homeless population numbers, the number of children in poverty, the child mortality rate.....and break it down by race.

There is a bespectacled white guy who is on at night and annoyingly points to an interactive board that alternatively shows: Google satellite maps of Port-au-Prince, layered over with roads, 3-D diagrams of population density, or locations of the sites of the quake and aftershocks' impact, as well as boxes with factoids such as "Haiti is 80% Catholic." He commented that 80% of Haiti's population lives below the poverty line. Then he said that 12% of the US population lives below the poverty line. As if that is a good thing. Do the math: if you compare the US total population to Haiti's the number is grim. (I do not of course mean to suggest that US poverty is comparable to poverty in Haiti, but I find it interesting to consider that poor people are not discussed in our own country, for example in the election, or even in the health care debate. The implication is that if you are poor it's your own fault and the focus of the appeals made by Democrats was "the middle class" or "working people." We fleetingly saw some of them during Katrina, and then went into denial again.)

I have been speaking with several of my very smart friends, who pointed out a couple more things. One is the relentless focus on people's dead bodies, abject lumps on the road, covered by ashes, baking in the sun. After 9/11 and Karina, and even during the tsunami, much hand-wringing in the media involved the ethics of letting us see corpses and the disrespect for the dead and/or their families. In the case of Haiti, no one seems to question it, and there has been a barrage of images of people's loved ones. Paradoxically, it seems to me, just as the victims are being dumped in mass graves without being photographed first as someone suggested in print (with what cameras? And are they even recognizable? Would you want to give that to a relative?), the media are capturing thousands of images of anonymous people. Another thing has to do with the relationships being made between this disaster and Katrina. At first I thought this a rather incisive parallel drawing attention as it does to the persisting racism and neglect of poor people in this country. But a friend said that he thinks it is a kind of do-over where some in the US want to self-congratulate about their life-saving humanitarian role abroad, extending a hand to our Pan-American neighbor. Rather than a country incapable of taking care of its own disaster, that wiped out a major city, now we are the magnanimous and efficient first world saviors.


On the voyeurism and poor taste (to use understatement) front, here is what I saw on CNN last night. A reporter recounted that she asked if she could put up a mic into a crevice to speak to a woman that civilians working with bare hands, were digging out from the rubble of a school. They agreed, and as we saw footage of the dust covered dehydrated woman being gingerly withdrawn from the crushed building, we hear the reporter say that she asked her "how do you feel?" Is this the most stupid question ever asked by a reporter? It has to be in the top ten. How do you think she feels? She has been trapped in a dark crevice for 50 hours without food or water, hearing screams of people who are now dead.

Update 2:

Inadvertent "moment of realness" number ? - Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré was on Anderson Cooper 360 commenting on the rumors of looting and violence. He compared coverage of Haiti's earthquake to media images of Katrina (he should know, he was appointed by Bush to run the military operation) and said that "people are afraid of the poor." He commented that outsiders come in and see crowds of people and assume a riot will break out. The General describes himself as "African-American Creole" (he's from Louisiana) so I think he is particularly equipped to see the analogy since he must have himself experienced racism first hand. We are already familiar with the criminalization of the poor in this country.

Update 3:
"Moment of realness" number ? A reporter exhausted, describes to Anderson Cooper the struggle a family undertook to dig an 11 year old girl out from under rubble, by Thurs. they had gotten her out, the girl seemed fine. Then she died. No doctor saw her. He described seeing "dozens" of aid workers excavating a "fancy hotel" but none in the neighborhoods where Haitians live. And die.